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The Sin Eater

strange woman hiding in water

[by James Lawrence Rhodes]

 

It was November 1977 on the beach of Aberdaron that I first saw the figure of Dafydd Jones. The heat of the summer had passed into a bright but cold autumn. My father, an offshore oil worker, had rented a local cottage for the entire year and my mother, who was clearly bored to tears at home, had insisted that we get as much use out of it as possible. We were there for half term.

We had both fallen in love with the Llŷn Peninsula from the moment we saw it, but it had worked its way deep into my bones and I felt more at home there than when I was back in the quiet streets of my own little village in Lancashire. The long fields and granite peaks stayed in my eyes until they ringed the pupils with their colour. The calm persistence of the ocean lapped at my nerves as I sat in my harsh, unnatural classroom, with its bluetack stained paint, calling to me. The sublime mystery of the Welsh landscape left me with a constant sense of disappointment whenever I was anywhere else.

Aberdaron beach is especially expansive and beautiful, though given the cold of the day I was not expecting to see anyone else there. Jones was the thinnest man I had ever seen, even stood as he was in a padded green woollen jumper, brown jacket, and tattered slacks. He looked rectangular and fragile like the shell of a razor fish.

The man loomed over what looked to me like a thick black rock, brine dampened and shiny. As I trudged across sand, made sluggish by the weight of late autumnal rain, I was stricken with a blast of airborne sand by a wind that had not presented itself until I left the shelter of the cliff wall. I blinked my eyes against the grit and waded through the gusts onto the open beach.

Dafydd Jones stood holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand and eating what looked to me like a sandwich. I could overhear him saying something in the musical variety of the Welsh language. The wind stole most of his consonants but not his volume. As he saw me, a look of panic crossed his face.

As I neared the man and the peculiar shape, Jones waved his crook at me. I should have picked up on the warning from the gesture and the stern expression of his face but my 13-year-old curiosity had the better of me and I chose to interpret it as a greeting. I was not much used to being around grown men, my father was only home in fits and starts and I was the youngest boy of a family of seven women. I sometimes comfort myself with the idea that I missed Jones’s intent. It is a memory that refuses to be rewritten; I chose to misinterpret the gesture and kept on with my keen approach.

Jones looked at me with an expression of horror, as if he simply could not believe anyone could be so completely ignorant. Then he turned and walked towards the cliff, reaching and scaling it before I had fully made it across the sand. As I neared the black shape, I watched him turn at the apex of crumbling red clay that stretched the long length of Aberdaron beach, ending in a stone wall to protect the buildings of the village near the sea: the church, the pub, and the newsagents that sold buckets and spades. It was an artificial division between sea and land, nature and humanity, and I chose to ignore that also. I watched the lanky figure scramble up onto the sheep field at the top of the cliff and when I was certain he was no longer watching me, I walked forward to the black rock.

I should have known that a rock that size does not simply appear on a beach, no matter how strong the tide but I was a stupid kid at the best of times. The wind chilled my back through a crack that formed between my jeans and anorak as I leaned forward to feel the texture of the rock. My hand pressed into the soft cold of the flesh. With my illusion shattered I noticed the thin flippers of the seal pulled close to its side, almost indistinguishable from the rest of its mass.

Death had almost entirely obscured the seal’s face; its eyes had closed, slick black over slick black. Its whiskers had flattened against its face, its nasal cavities drew my attention, two patches of greater dark in a great darkness.

Beneath those two patches and visible only by deliberate inspection, the seal’s teeth protruded from the retracted skin of the mouth in an expression of grimacing mortality. The sand beneath the seal’s mouth was tainted brown with whatever fluid had been discharged. Behind the frailty of the seal’s death, the teeth remained yellow, solid, and still vibrant. My finger stretched out, shaking and hesitant, until I could feel the cold smooth solidity of the teeth. No sooner had I touched it than I pulled my hand back, thinking I had felt it move. I allowed myself a few seconds of fear and then self-ridicule.

I genuflected before the seal in respect and muttered the only appropriate prayer I could remember.

“Eternal rest grant on him o Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him…”

It was not a prayer for animals but I figured the solemness superseded the need for appropriate language and I crossed myself to bring the prayer to a fitting close. The chorus of the waves joined with the triumphant exaltation of the winter’s winds, joining my requiem to lost beauty.

The cottage we rented was at the top of the hill that looked down over Aberdaron. Whilst the majority of other houses were built of thick stone, our cottage was wood framed with walls of corrugated iron, painted white. I had a small room at the back of the cottage and my mother slept in a bigger room directly adjacent to mine. The room had been furnished by local second-hand sales. The bed was not full length and I had to sleep on my side with my legs pulled up; linen and heavy woollen blankets were tucked in so tight by my mother that they were always difficult to get into. The water bottle burned my toes as I held them against it. The metal of the roof let the rain drive against it with a percussive comfort that never failed to lull me to sleep.

I do not ordinarily dream with any clarity, just a fog of shapes and images that I remember only for a few seconds before waking. I dreamt that night though.

I was back on the beach; this time Dafydd Jones was nowhere to be seen. I stood before the seal, staring at that mouth both repulsive and irresistible. I leaned forward and pried open the rigorous jaws creating a note out of suction and mucus. That time I really did feel movement—flicking dampness against my fingers. I fell backwards, the damp of the sand soaking instantly through the seat of my jeans.

I was frozen in horror as the head appeared at the seal’s mouth. The emerald of the scales caught the sunlight and the red of the forked tongue animated the corpse.

Seized with a great consternation but unable to move, I watched the bright green adder push through heavy strands of blooded and congealed mucus. The yellow brown strands clung to its scales like discarded placenta as it curled itself onto the beach. I looked first to my hand and then back to the snake. It raised its head back to strike.

My hand retracted too late, I felt the snake move with me as I pulled the hand backwards. The fangs deepening against the pull, scraping the bone at the back of my hand. A burn of venom.

The hand hurt even as I used it to rub my eyes. I held it out in front of me as I sat up in bed. Two raised dots with the look and texture of liver spots stood up on the hand, surrounded by an angry redness. They were not unlike flea bites, I told myself they were flea bites. Aberdaron has its share of sand fleas and for all I knew, the seal might have carried fleas as well.

My mother was holding a mug of tea. She was already arranged in a floral dress and cardigan; the semiotics of an Anglican morning, created to a rigorous schedule of loneliness that abated only during morning worships.

My mother attended Church religiously, there is no irony in that statement. I am of the opinion that her religion was not dogmatic adherence to Christianity but the act of attendance itself. She would go every Sunday and Wednesday morning, even in Aberdaron where the services were given in Welsh. The local vicar, Reverend Thomas, was from Southern Wales and spoke Welsh as his second language rather than with the fluency of the locals, so would add in moments of English here and there. He was a medium sized man of slight build and greying hair. He possessed a seriousness and articulation that seemed to transcend the language he spoke and gave a sense of serenity that could at times be hypnagogic, particularly when you had walked to the church in the briskness of November to find yourself overdressed and over warm once inside the building.

St Hywyn’s church in Aberdaron would look ageless were it not entirely surrounded by an eternity of nature. Built from piled grey stones, topped with a darker slate and adorned with impressive arched windows, latticed in wood. It looks out across the white blue ocean that follows a curved bay that rises high above sea level. Its verdant graveyard is arranged with many coffin sized stone blocks that dominate the regular gravestones with their size. Across the teal and foam, the grassy mound of Bardsey Island stands sentinel against the future.

The inside of the church by contrast is white plastered and wood raftered. The impressive arch window at the back of the church is plain glass and stinkingly bright. My mother and I would sit universally in the pews toward the back of the chapel. We were relatively known to the locals, though few of them ever spoke to us.

There was a girl whose name that I didn’t know that seemed to attend all of the same services we did. Her face was narrow and dark as slate. She wore unfashionable jumpers with pictures on them and I wanted very much to be in love with her. I had smiled at her once and she had smiled back. Since then I had spent most services praying that she might initiate the conversation that I was much too terrified of to attempt.

On that particular Wednesday she was sat nearer to me than usual and I felt a great delight that I could see the outline of her collar bone beneath the red and purple cheques of her jumper. I spent a good two minutes ensconced in the detail before I noticed why she had moved from her usual seat.

There at the front of the church sat the unmistakable frame of the man I had seen on the beach. He sat in the front pew and, aside from him, it had been left conspicuously empty; as had the pew behind him. I felt a surge of nervousness at his sudden presence in the church and was very glad that he couldn’t see me. It itched the rash on my hand, the cold seemed to have inflamed it.

The vicar’s voice lilted up and down. I listened to the rhythm of the words and tried to imagine that I could understand them. I let the sounds calm me and was able to fully relax until it was time for communion. My mother nudged me to stand and joined the queue.

Slowly, I filtered up towards Dafydd Jones. Even with my eyes fixed rigidly on Reverend Thomas I could feel the gaze of that singular man burning like ember into the back of my neck. I clasped my hands together and raked my nails across the itching spot.

When I had taken the host, I sat back down, feeling the relief that came from no longer being in the field of Jones’s vision. It was at that point that Jones turned around and stared directly at me, prompting every head in the church to turn with a similarly stern expression. I felt my face crimson as my eyes met those of my nameless paramour. Reverend Thomas saved me by speaking and drawing attention back to himself. I wondered if my mother had noticed the attention I was receiving. Mercifully her own head was bowed in prayer and I seemed to have gotten away with it.

I spent the remaining duration of the service praying myself. I prayed for a quick exit from the chapel with no further focus on me. Taking a leaf from my mother’s book I bowed my head in a semblance of meditativeness.

I didn’t realise that the mass had ended until my mother stood. I watched her walk to the front of the chapel from the safe periphery of my still bowed eyes. Having spoken to the vicar for only a few seconds she returned and tapped my shoulder gently.

“Reverend Thomas would like a quick word with you if that’s OK,” said my mum.

I walked through a fog of muttered Welsh. I did not need to understand the words to pick up on the intonation of disapproval. I kept my head down and approached the vicar.

Reverend Thomas took my gaze with a quiet sense of agony in his eyes.

“Why have you brought Dafydd Jones to my church?” He asked.

I stared blankly at him, I had not then been introduced to the mysterious Jones.

“The man in the front row, you’ve seen him before? Right?”

At school I was always getting into trouble for saying or doing things that seemed normal or logical to me but that seemed to upset other people. I was on detention for a week for turning my geography homework into a science fiction story; it had all the answers in it, I didn’t see the problem. Things like that happened to me almost constantly, I had learned that the best way to deal with it was not to talk and never to admit to anything. That was the approach I took with Reverend Thomas.

I shook my head slowly, the Reverend fixed his gaze on mine. His eyes were full of a mixture of guilt and forgiveness that made me want to instantly confess.

“Can I go now?” I asked.

All throughout the day, I felt the rash on my hand burning. As it was a Wednesday my mother had driven to Pwllheli for the market. I had never enjoyed shopping and had opted to stay in the cottage and read; I was at that point trying to work through a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that I had got the previous Christmas. November on the Llyn Peninsula can be fiercely cold; the wind chill exemplified by the force of the coastal gusts. I had the electric heater turned on and a blanket over myself for warmth. The tinny walls of the cottage rattled in a way that reassured me I was quite justified in not exploring outside that day.

The knock on the door was unexpected and I assumed it was a lady called Mrs Roberts whom we rented the cottage from. She would come around periodically to check that everything was all right. I opened the door and almost instantly sighed.

The Reverend Thomas wore a woollen hat with a bobble and an expression of concern.

“Can we come in?”

I looked behind me as if to signify that I was alone.

“I have spoken to your mother,” said the Reverend

“OK,” I said.

I made a pot of tea because they were adults and that was what you did when adults came over.

The two of them were sat at the kitchen table, both of them facing me.

“You may have noticed that none of the locals would sit with Dafydd,” Reverend Thomas said.

I nodded.

“Dafydd is a sin eater, perhaps the last in the United Kingdom. Do you know what a sin eater is?”

I shook my head.

“It’s an old tradition that I suspect has its roots in Babylonian folklore, it’s certainly not Christian. Their job is to stand over the bodies of the dead and perform a ritual to take in the evil deeds of the dead person.”

“Like Catholic confession?”

The Vicar’s face lit up for a second, the flicker of a smile crossing his lips.

“I suppose there are some similarities. Anyway, the sin eater, having taken in all those evil deeds becomes something of a pariah. Many believe them to have knowledge of their relatives, secrets, and scandals… All that stuff.”

The vicar waved his hands as if he were attempting brevity.

“They are responsible for other ritual tasks too, keeping evil in themselves instead of in the world. Trading their own souls for the peace of man; it’s not without nobility, it’s just not Christian.”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with me,” I told him.

“It’s a bit of a long story but it starts like this: The seal you found on the beach; it is older than it has any right to be and is not strictly speaking a seal.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

I chanced glancing at Dafydd Jones in the hope that he might talk and take on some aspect of humanity to sooth the terror I felt in his presence. His expression did not shift.

Reverend Thomas continued:. “The language of Wales is older than Christianity and the land here has a religion of its own. I can bounce my words off the stone walls of my chapel but God is in the land.”

“That’s why it’s so beautiful,” I told him.

“Indeed, but as we are on Earth and not in Heaven we must also expect to find the adversary in the nature too. Like the serpent in the garden.”

I could see Reverend Thomas’s hand shaking as he paused to sip his tea.

“I used to blame the locals here for their ignorance of the church,” he told me, “Their refusal to accept the true transmission of God’s words. I was wrong though. No priest should expect people to accept the stories of a church that does not accept their stories.”

“What stories?” I asked.

“In this tale a man called Dylan ail Don who was a seal in the sea and a man on land, fell in love with a girl he saw playing in the sea. He came to her as a seal but he loved her as a man and the two of them had a child.”

“You mean the seal I saw on the beach?”

“According to Dafydd, he sheds his seal skin and takes to the land, looking for a bride.”

I nodded, ensconced in the magic of the story.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“As true as say, George and his dragon.”

My eyes widened in awe. In hindsight, I am not sure it was the response Reverend Thomas was hoping for.

“The lore is, that if the sin eater can take on his sins, the soul will find a wife on land and settle down. But if he is full of sin, he will come out as a serpent and seduce a woman to live with him in the sea.”

Reverend Thomas must have seen something in my expression. Perhaps the blanch of blood draining from my face. Whatever it was, he reached his hand forward to touch my arm reassuringly.

“I’m pretty sure that part isn’t real,” he told me.

I nodded, the slow foolish nod of a person caught between lying to others and lying to himself.

“Anyway, just to put this nonsense to bed, I was wondering if you would join us on a trip to Bardsey? It’ll be a bit choppy but I never turn up the opportunity myself. It’s a better pilgrimage than Rome. Plus, it should get the villagers back on side. I’ve seen you making eyes at Anwen.”

I did not think much before I agreed.

The small island of Bardsey had once been a Christian pilgrimage populated by monks. Now it was windswept, isolated, and alluring, beckoning to summer swimmers and holding them at length with crags and distance.

The boat launched from the beach, gusts of sand shifting our hair as we approached it. It was a small motor boat with a rig at the back for fishing, sitting anchored in the shallows. Reverend Thomas instructed me to take off my shoes and socks, to roll my trousers up and wade out towards it.

The water of the Llyn can be gelid in the summer months; in November it stripped the sensation from my bare legs in seconds. The splash of the pushing waves tightened the fabric of my jeans and the turn ups rubbed my legs with cold caustic saline.

The small white motor boat bowed as I clambered over the side, helped up by the fisherman who owned the boat: a man almost as dark as Jones but shorter and more heavily set. He wore a plastic mack buttoned up to his neck. Beads of moisture dripped down his arm as he reached out to me. He spoke to Reverend Thomas in Welsh, his voice as soft and deep as an underwater lake.

“He says we don’t have any life jackets,” Reverend Thomas smiled, “So try not to fall in.”

I forced myself to grin and gripped the wooden bench with both hands. The boat had three such benches. I squeezed in next to a large object that had been wrapped in tarpaulin, let my leg rest against the object, and could guess what it was from the texture. I did not put my shoes back on or roll my trousers back down, holding on double tight as the boat shifted again to allow the entry of Jones.

The crossing to Bardsey was nauseating and would have been a white knuckle ride, had the cold of the waves not already rendered my knuckles white. The rash on my hand bit at me almost constantly but I couldn’t bring myself to let go and itch it.

Angry squalls whipped up the white tips of the cresting ocean and flung them rudely into my face. I licked the salt from my lips as the boat banked the coast of the island and shattered into the bay, buffeting over the wash of waves.

I stayed in the boat as the three men dragged it onto the shore, hopping off in the shallows and treading lightly through the foam on to the sodden sand.

The men pulled the boat forward, not quite up to the tide line but far enough to ensure us a couple of hours. The boatman dropped the anchor on to the beach. Sitting on a rock, trying in vain to brush sand off my feet and get my shoes back on comfortably, I watched Jones and the boatman lift the tarpaulin and swing it four times before hefting it over the side of the boat. As it landed the heavy sheeting opened to reveal the corpse of the seal. Without waiting or giving instruction, the three men arranged themselves, Jones and the boatman taking the back corners. Reverend Thomas lifted the front left corner and all three sets of eyes directed themselves at me in anticipation. It took me a few seconds but I did eventually get the hint. Clasping the rough shiny material in both hands, I lifted. The seal was far heavier than I imagined it would be. My arms burned as I carried it. I dropped my corner several times before we had mad it off the beach and onto the mud path leading up onto the island. Each time I turned and faced stern expressions chastising me with silence.

It took us a while but with care and labour we brought the seal up to a large incline. The wetness of the mud trail lubricated the path and allowed the seal to be dragged rather than carried. The vicar and I swapped places as the two stronger men shoulder the majority of the weight. Ours was the intermittent effort of lifting over snagging rocks.

Green pastoral grass bordered the grey and black rock that guided us upwards. There is a lighthouse on the island and I had hoped to make it as far as the bright red striped barber’s pole with all of its connotations of normality and parental custody.

Nor was it to the abandoned Abbey, with its sanctuary of Godliness and consecration, that we walked, but to the more barren end of the island. Although the distance was relatively short the journey was tiresome and arduous.

None of the men spoke to each other along the way. A few of my more dramatic slips prompted a few words from Reverend Thomas to check I was all right. I skinned both of my knees and the blood soaked through the dirt that had sodden over the tears in my jeans. Narrative memory is supposed to filter painful events down to their beginning and end, leaving the pain as a vague back story. However, I still remember the falls, the stinging of my palms as they reached forward to protect me. The discomfort of the grazes that tore open on the loose shale. The weight of the mud on my clothes, the heat of the effort under the burning cold of damp and that stinging rash on the back of my hand.

Mostly I remember the silence that lurked behind the noise of our movement; the quiet strength of Jones’s voice as it said decisively, “bedd Arthur.”

The spot we finally settled on was in the centre of a strong field. Two slate monoliths cut through the yielding earth. The wide field looked over a wide sea, heather husks dotted amidst the malachite ground cover. Solid against the driving wind that hurled freezing water at us until it dripped from our brows.

It was then that Reverend Thomas broke the long silence.

“I’ll have to ask you not to repeat what you see here to anyone, can you do that.”

Reverend Thomas’s face took on a morbid gall. I nodded before I had time to process the meaning of his words.

The seal lay quiet between those primordial giants. Dead, water blacked, and in tune with the living slate. The tarpaulin pulled from underneath it, and folded into a neat square. Held down by a rock.

Reverend Thomas reached into his pocket retrieving a small bottle of holy water, a Bible and a cross.

He spoke the service in Welsh. However I could guess with some visual prompting, the appropriate points to drop in an “Amen.” The boatman and I stood at the flanks of the seal and the Reverend Thomas and Dafydd Jones arranged themselves. Seen from above, we would have made a perfect cruciform.

Dafydd held a crust of bread that looked soggy and unappetising. At each “Amen” he took a bite and very slowly chewed. I wondered how long the service would be. I longed to talk in normal words again. Words that I could actually define if prompted. To speak without the sensation that I had something to apologise for. In my mind I questioned the necessity of my presence there. As Reverend Thomas flicked his holy water, I felt cold. As Dafydd Jones took another bite of his bread I felt the wind render my clothing ineffective.

After what seemed like many hours Reverend Thomas reached the end of his Welsh service and closed his Bible. The thud of leather bound pages sounding out even against those noisy torrents of air. The thud lingered in my ears.

Nobody showed any sign of moving. I let my eyes wander from the face of the vicar to the grim weather beaten brow of the boatman. His eyes were watering, salt tears shined on his cheeks. Was it the wind? I wondered. His face showed no other sign of movement, no expression that I could interpret.

My gaze was distracted by the sudden movement of Dafydd Jones, his slender fingers reached into his brown tweed jacket. Jones took out an ancient glass bottle. It was of the triangular design of the sort I had seen one of my uncles dig up in his garden, green and unlabelled.

Dafydd Jones pulled out the cork from the bottle and pressed it to his lips. I felt my hand tingling where the rash had been. I looked down and saw that the redness had reduced itself to two small pinprick bumps. Jones emptied the bottle in one smooth motion.

As the bottle dropped to his waist, Jones wiped a foam residue from his lips with the other hand. He then loudly belched. I smiled involuntarily and Jones looked over at me conspiratorially. He winked and I smiled again.

Neither the boatman or Reverend Thomas shifted expression, they were looking to Jones as if for clarification. The moment of humanity dropped from his face and his eyes became dark again.

The three men gathered at the head of the seal, mumbling in Welsh. Reverend Thomas turned and faced the boatman with a gentle shake of his head causing the boatman to purse his lips with an august shake of his head.

“The soul has gone,” said Reverend Thomas “on to the land looking for company.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Reverend Thomas’ eyes flicked back to the boatman.

“I’m not sure it means anything good,” he told me.

The cottage was still empty when I returned to it. Empty and cold. I ate some toast as I waited for the immersion heater, then ran myself a hot bath. I threw my damp clothes into a heap next to the wicker laundry basket.

As evening came, I put the last of the fifty pence pieces into the electric meter and sat watching the black and white telly with my back pressed against the electric radiator. A John Wayne film called The War Wagon played on BBC 1; the only channel the set could receive. I sat through its opening sequence before I drifted off to sleep, my back burning and my feet still cold.

I did not hear the front door open; rather I was woken by the gentle shaking of my arm. My eyes blurred and salted.

“Wake up,” said my mother.

She was leaning over me with a look of wild enthusiasm in her eyes. Her gentle insistent shaking of my arm continued even after my eyes had fully opened.

“This is Bryn,” she told me.

Beside my mother stood a man about her own height. His hair was silver, he was a little loose about the middle and older than my mother, older than my father perhaps. I did not leap up to greet him.

“Don’t be nervous, Bryn has been looking after me.”

The inference of the words cut into me.

“I suppose that’s why you’ve been so long,” I snapped.

“Now dear,” said my mother, “You’ve already proved you can look after yourself fine on your own.”

Having had only toast to fill my void of calories the statement was an affront to my perspective of the mother-child relationship. Are we all spoiled? Perhaps it was just me. I regret it.

My mother had linked her arm around Bryn’s, gazing at him with a keen evince of vacant ardour.

“We’re going for a walk to the beach, would you like to come?”

I was just beginning to feel warm and the beach was the last place I wanted to go after sunset. I should have though, I often wonder if I could have made a difference. But then, who did she think she was? Leaving me to go through all that alone and then coming back with some fat old man wrapped around her.

“Fine on my own.”

I moved myself onto the couch and folded my arms for effect. Mum leant over and kissed the top of my head.

“I love you,” she said.

After the two of them left, it took the anger a good ten minutes to dissipate and be eclipsed by loneliness and fear. Sudden realisation is always a slow process for me.

I hurriedly threw on my pumps, the only shoes I had that weren’t soaking wet. I grabbed my coat and followed the main road down towards the beach. I could feel my heels bruise through the thin rubber of my Dunlops and the scabs on my knees opening to weep.

For a November it was bright and clear, the rain of the morning had blown over to leave the sky bright with constellations. The Spar shop at the bottom of the hill was still open and a few customers seemed to be milling around outside it.

I passed the Ty Newydd pub with its low drone of jukebox and chatter, and clattered down the stairs out onto the deserted beach front. The wind was stronger on the beach than it had been in the village but it was less strong than I was used to. The noise of the waves surpassed that of the pub as my feet took to the sand.

I glanced up at the chapel of St Hywyn. Amidst the blocks and grave stones I could see the silhouette of a man, stood watching the further end of the cliffs. I followed his gaze and watched two figures descending the cliff from the other side of the Church yard. I did not need anything more than outlines to know who they were. My mother was slipping on the wet clay, Bryn’s arm keeping her steady. She was still in her floral dress, I could see it ride up around her waistline as she slipped again. I sucked in the cold air and set my legs in their direction.

The tide was fully in, white horses galloping at the coast as if they intended to take it back through sheer persistence.

My mother and Bryn were headed directly for the water’s edge. I had begun to sprint but I was no athlete and I was already exhausted. What should have been a sprint was a slow, loping trot.

I could see them more closely, I was nearly there. Bryn’s head turned as if to scorn my spurious effort to reach him.

My mother’s eyes were fixed on the ocean. As she and Bryn reached the water’s edge I was still not close enough for my shouts to be heard against the wind.

I noticed the shape cutting through the sea in their direction. I recognised the boat and it gave me hope of salvation. They were both undressing at the water’s edge, letting their clothes fall into the foam surf. I shouted and shouted as I ran, terror and a lactic burn flooding my body with chemicals and panic.

In they went, oblivious to the cold, unflinching at the ferocity of the waves. In the went, step after step. I could see Bryn shift with each dreadful increment.

I did not stop to undress, I had been made to swim in my pyjamas to get my gold swimming certificate. In the second that I had to make the decision, that seemed like enough of a justification to save time and charge in. My mother was swimming then, the black head of a seal by her side. His head dived and I watched my mother dive after him. My clothes were heavy, I kicked off my pumps and felt my socks dragging against me.

The boat was close now; the boatman stood at the prow. His body coiled and a harpoon raised and ready.

At the sight of adult help, I swam and clutched the side of the boat. I could feel the weight of my clothes pulling me down. I kicked off the socks allowing me to tread water more easily. The relief was short lived, I felt a sharp pull at my leg. I saw the movement of the harpoon, my hands slipped from the side of the boat and the force of the pull. My arms flailing to reach down to free my leg, the force of the pull tossing water into my face, leaving me breathless. I could see the black shape of a seal pulling me away from the boat.

The harpoon had fallen wide of its target. And the boatman dragged it back by its chord. Meanwhile I gave up struggling against the seal and let myself be dragged, feeling it was over, waiting to be pulled down but moving on the surface, slowly back toward the shore.

The harpoon flew again and this time it struck home. I felt the seal’s teeth loosen just for a second. It squealed, a barking rasp somewhere between dog and devil.

Free, I began to sink. My lungs near implosion, I kept myself up. Waves punctuating my gasps, I choked in the foam. I kicked, I sputtered, and I began to fade.

I felt an arm wrap around me and drag me up. I bit my lips and tried to blink the salt from my eyes. I felt the grip loosen and as my feet kicked downwards, they found the sea bed.

Next to me, floating face down, was the body of a woman; a harpoon protruding from her back, blood darkening the water.

Pulling the body by the shoulder I flipped it over. It was not my mother but a dark haired woman who looked to be in her early thirties. There was a familiarity to her that I didn’t recognise at first. Her skin caught the moonlight, reflecting its sickly pallor and barren tranquillity.

I held the body, not knowing what else to do. Utterly confused. The weighty splash of the boatman seemed a thousand miles away.

I could hear him wading forward. He grasped the arm of the woman’s body and spoke a word so universal even I could understand it.

“Mam.”

Amidst the waves, the blur of my vision and the sudden hypothermia warmth I watched the heads of two seals bob up and down twice before sinking permanently out of sight.

My father did not make the funeral of Mrs Roberts as it was performed the very next morning. However, he was there soon after that. The three men, Dafydd, Reverend Thomas and the boatman (who I now know as Owen Roberts), dug the grave during the night. Owen Roberts had five brothers, who each had sons and each took a turn at digging.

No police or coroner were called, not that I saw, not for Mrs Roberts. They came for my mother and called out the lifeboats to search. I never told the police or my father the whole truth because it was hard enough to live with what had happened on my own.

I listened to the funeral and cried with Owen Roberts as a makeshift plywood coffin was lowered into the graveyard. As Reverend Thomas cast the first dirt over the coffin, I watched Dafydd Jones eating his bread.

Owen Roberts put his hand on my shoulder.

“That’s my sin he’s eating. Maybe she’d be back alive if it wasn’t for me.”

I could tell that the tone of his voice was supposed to make me feel hopeful.

“If you ever need my boat…”

Owen choked on the sentence.

I looked up for the reassuring eyes of Reverend Thomas. His head was bowed and his cheeks wet with tears. As more Earth was shoveled into the grave he took the crucifix from around his neck and let it drop amidst the soil.

 


James Lawrence Rhodes is a dyslexic English teacher at an inner city school in Liverpool. He has been published in The Southpaw Literary Journal, Mungbeing, Flashes in the Dark, 365 Tomorrows, and others. He is a regular contributor to Schlock Webzine (under a range of pseudonyms) and has self-published The Hettford Witch Hunt series (as James Rhodes) and The Days of Mister Thomas (as Oafish J Rhodes).

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